What Do Opera Singers Actually Get Paid?

Why do we value our artists so little in the U.S. that we question whether $100,000 per year is too much money to earn for essentially being the backbone of the most well regarded opera house in the country?
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There has been a lot of union activity lately in the opera world, and numbers have been thrown around in the press which have caused many an ear to perk up. I always knew that singing in the chorus at the Metropolitan Opera was a lucrative job compared to a lot of other career paths one could take in this field, but I wasn't aware that the pay was (if we are to believe the New York Times) between $100,000 and $200,000 per year, when you include things like overtime, pensions, health insurance, etc. To a lot of working opera singers, that seems like a lot of money. Not that the chorus doesn't work incredibly hard at an extremely high level for their money -- they often do the least glamorous grunt work that allows the art form to flourish, and the amount of hours that they work and perform can be quite enormous.

I, personally, have no qualms whatsoever about their salaries -- I firmly believe they earn every penny. However, it still got me thinking about the opera industry and what the actual income of a typical opera singer pursuing a solo career was like. It's a difficult thing to figure out for several reasons. First of all, it's a hugely taboo subject, and not one that is easy to get people to discuss. Second, most singers have a pretty widely varying income from year to year, and their per performance fee varies pretty extensively from gig to gig. Third, it's difficult to decide from which group to collect data, since there are singers who make their living only from singing, some who supplement with teaching, some who supplement with other jobs, and some who actually have full-time jobs but still do legitimate singing gigs when they can.

But for the sake of argument, let's think about singers who make their entire livings from singing opera, and who don't supplement their income. I'm an example of that kind of singer. I'm not a famous example, but I made my professional debut in 1999, and since then I have only ever made money from singing, minus a short stint I did teaching a few lessons at a university for three semesters in between gigs. I have broken the six-figure ceiling a few different years, although not by too terribly much, and that was always on years when I had some substantial work in Europe (there are usually more performances for European gigs, the fees can be higher, the Euro has always been stronger than the dollar since I've been singing over there, just to name a few reasons). However, that is before taxes, before expenses (like renting an apartment and feeding yourself on a gig while you're already paying for the apartment where you live when you're not on the road), before agent fees, before travel costs, and before the costs of role preparation like lessons and coachings. All those things can easily eat up 50 percent of your fee. Oh, also, that is before paying for your own health insurance, not covered medical expenses, and any money you may put away for retirement (in my case, that has been zilch so far). And some years -- even recent years -- because of time off from having a baby, and lack of desire to pursue much European work with said baby in tow, I've made half of that. So actually, when you consider all those factors, a job in the Met chorus looks pretty darn good from a financial standpoint.

I think that this disparity between a solo singer's typical income and the salaries of the Met chorus is probably what causes people to raise an eyebrow or two about whether those Met choristers "deserve" to earn "so much" money. I took a very unscientific poll amongst my friends on Facebook, and most of them agreed with my guesstimate that fewer than 10 percent of working solo opera singers make more than $100,000 per year. The Met chorus singers certainly work more hours overall and do more performances than the solo singers, but they also don't have to deal with the stress and emotional turmoil that is caused by having your voice and your skills constantly evaluated by opera companies and the press. And they have job security -- something solo singers never ever get.

But here's my question: Why do we value our artists so little in the U.S. that we question whether $100,000 per year is too much money to earn for essentially being the backbone of the most well-regarded opera house in the country? And why are solo opera singers, who train their voices to the highest level of capabilities -- for the same number of years, often, as physicians train -- compensated so poorly commensurate to their ability and expertise?

Well, the basic answer is that we as Americans have a cultural landscape that doesn't value the arts very highly. We have absolutely no government funding for the arts, so our arts organizations must rely almost exclusively on the kindess of wealthy patrons to keep their doors open. So essentially, american opera singers rely on wealthy people who like opera in order to make a living. It makes sense if you believe that everything in life is only worth what it can sustain financially, but it is a difficult pill to swallow if you believe that the arts enhance humanity and actually benefit our society in ways that can't be quantified in dollars and cents.

But let me just step off my soapbox here for a moment for a reality check about what it really means to be an artist in this country compared to other places. In France recently at the Aix-en-Provence festival opening there was an enormous protest, chronicled here by the wonderful singer Sarah Connolly. When I read her description of being physically barred from getting to the stage for her entrance and trying to sing over screaming and noisemaking all night long I wondered: What could possibly be worth protesting like that? Then I read about the law in France that is under question, which actually pays artists unemployment for the times when they are in between jobs. Unlike American actors, for example, who are always working as waiters and waitresses in between acting jobs, France allows its artists to be just that -- artists -- by keeping them afloat during the dry times (as long as they qualify by working enough hours the rest of the year). I personally wanted to cry when I read about it.

As an American freelance opera singer, I have no job security, no health insurance, no retirement, no maternity leave, no unemployment. Yes, I chose to do this (although some would say it chose me when I was 9 years old and started taking singing lessons), but I could quit singing at any time and become a mortgage broker. But the truth is that I really love being an artist and spending my days rehearsing and performing. I love how it makes me feel, and how it can affect other people. I love the colleagues I get to work with and know, and I love doing something that challenges me, and something that feels like it has a history and a community and a relevance. Some people think that if you're lucky enough to do something you not only like but love, you shouldn't get paid a lot of money for it. I think that's absolute nonsense. The more people in a society who do things that they are not only good at but love to do, the better place it is to live.

The problem is not that we are overpaying our artists, even the highest paid ones at the Met. The problem is that we are undervaluing their worth in our society, and this is what these labor negotiations should be painful reminders of. The Met can't solve this problem alone, and may need to renegotiate some contracts for the time being, but we as artists must find a way to educate the general population about the value of what we do if we want to continue to do it. There is a reason opera still exists today, despite all the financial obstacles to making it happen. There is also a reason we don't get paid very much for what we do, and I believe each of us has a responsibility to brainstorm our way into the next generation of cultural literacy.

*addendum: after first submitting this post, I heard from a few people in the field with the following numbers:

- One international singer singing in all the major international opera houses wrote to let me know that they barely clear $100,000 per year after all expenses and they have even resorted to sleeping on friends' couches while working at an A house in order to save money.

- Another singer, who is now studying medicine, wrote to tell me that for a statistics class they took a survey of 100 solo singers and found that the median income was $17,500.

- Lauren Flanigan, acclaimed soprano and now patron and educator of young singers, told me that during her audition boot camp training session, the managers and people from the business who have participated inform her students that they estimate a career singing at the B opera houses can allow earnings of $40,000 to $70,000 per year (before expenses), whereas similar level houses in Europe pay more like $300,000 per year.

- Most of the people in the business who replied to my query about percentages said they believed the percentage of singers earning over $100,000 was far less than 10 percent -- most said between 2 percent and 5 percent.

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